A Few Good Women

At the ready.

Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

The debate over whether female troops should serve in combat has largely been settled: They belong. The task now is to dissolve the remaining pockets of resistance, one of which is in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Under an order signed in 2012 by former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, all of the services are required to lift the "co-location" restriction on women in combat roles by the end of this year, unless they ask for an exemption by Oct. 1. Both Army General Martin Dempsey -- chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus have urged the services to accept the change, on the grounds that a more diverse force is a stronger force.

Yet the Marines seem determined not to go along. Last week the corps released a summary report of research in which the Marines compared two battalions, one with 200 men and the other with 100 men and 100 women. They were trained and tested in infantry, artillery and armor over a nine-month period. The all-male group, according to the summary, significantly outperformed the integrated group in almost every metric. Women were not only slower and weaker, but also injured themselves at six times the rate of men.

A closer look, however, shows that the protocol for the study and the way the results were interpreted are fundamentally flawed. For example, the summary report provides only averages. It makes no mention of individual top performers, among women or men. This is a remarkable oversight, because in the end it is individuals who are selected for combat roles. Nor did the summary specify the 39 tasks on which the two groups were equal.

Perhaps most important, many of the men in the both battalions had lengthy military experience and years of strength and conditioning training, while the women were just out of basic training. Many had been recruited under lower standards than their male counterparts -- they are given more time to complete a three-mile run, for example -- whereas any women placed into combat positions would have to meet the same basic yardsticks as men.

All in all, it's difficult to say this study proves anything except the Marines' determination to prove that women aren't up to the job.

Similar research in Canada and Denmark has found that women are suited to combat roles. In 2011, a study found that U.S. women deployed to combat zones were as mentally resilient as men, and the Pentagon found that women serving combat-support roles in Afghanistan and Iraq have been able to talk to women and children, thereby gaining information and local trust, more easily than their male counterparts.

In short: Allowing women who meet the same standards as men to serve in combat improves a nation's ability to protect itself and its foreign interests. It's a widely accepted notion in more than a dozen countries -- including Australia, France and Germany -- that dropped restrictions on women on the front lines. In the U.S., the Air Force plans to open seven combat positions to women next year, and the Army's elite Ranger School graduated its first two female officers in August. Those two services are not expected to challenge the integration mandate.

These are facts the Marines should weigh heavily over the next two weeks. If they adduce their flawed study to request a waiver from the integration requirement, the Joint Chiefs and Navy have an obligation to reject it.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.